Living off the Land: Managing your garden after a killing frost | Living off the land

Different parts of the Snake River Valley experienced a “damaging” but not killing frost a couple weeks ago. And if your garden was covered, then you probably have loads of green tomatoes, squash, and vegetables still ripening and growing.

Within the near future we will inevitably be having a killing frost, which will make most people’s gardens a thing of the past. After a killing frost you may be looking at the carnage in your garden and think that if we had just a couple more weeks, we could have gotten that produce ripened. (That’s always wishful thinking, but it never happens.)

For most people this was a slightly difficult growing season due to the intense heat we experienced during the summer and how much extra watering it took to keep plants growing, keep up with evaporation and not have them drought stressed. Also, many people started planting a garden for the first time this year as they now had time at home due to the coronavirus. This summer was one of the best “warm season-type plant” growing summers in recent years. Warm season plants such as watermelon, corn, beans, cantaloupe, peppers, tomatoes and squash performed very well this year. Each summer season is unpredictable, and even small changes such as a warmer than expected May, can have a dramatic effect on crop success.

Seasonal weather anomalies can create a higher than normal disease or insect problem, or conversely if the conditions are beneficial, the crop can be improved and have great quality.

But, back to the frost topic, what do we do in the aftermath of a killing frost? Well, if the produce was protected, and not yet ripe, such as a green tomato, and didn’t have any freeze damage, then it can be ripened inside the home and used for fresh eating. If it received any frost damage then, place it in the compost pile or trash. Immature winter squash or immature summer squash that has been damaged by a frost, will probably not get any larger though at this point in the season. If a squash’s vines were protected then, the fruit may continue to ripen, but if the plant’s leaves are frozen then fruit itself would probably be affected as well, and will rot and spoil.

Non-frost damaged immature squash fruit should be used shortly after a frost comes along even if it wasn’t frosted, as it will not hold up in storage, and will deteriorate. If it was frost damaged, then it should be tossed into the compost pile. Certain crops such as carrots, beets and parsnips can handle a frost, and although their tops will begin to die off, the beets underneath will be fine as long as the frost was not hard enough to damage them. Other crops such as Brussels sprouts can handle light frosts without issue and continue to grow and produce. From this point going forward, if you cover your garden, you are extending your growing season, but really only to ripen fruit. Cool to cold nights and cooler days dramatically slow down a plants growth, so they really are not “growing” anymore but rather just ripening the fruit that was on the vine.

The days are getting shorter, which triggers many plants to start to senesce, or in more common words, slowly die. In a nutshell most garden plants are finishing up their growing season, and if done producing, should be cleaned up. Now is the perfect time to gather up dead plants, and other compostable material and make a compost pile to start the process of breaking them down. We still have some relatively warm days left this fall, and these temperatures are perfect for composting. With the right amounts of water, biodegradable materials, and mixing you can have yard and garden waste broken down in a very short amount of time.

One precaution though, if you had any diseases pop up this year, then do not compost those plant residues. Instead they should be collected, placed in plastic bags, and disposed in the garbage.

Lance Ellis is the University of Idaho Extension educator for Fremont County. He can be reached at 208-624-3102.

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